The Future of Education26 August 2016
In classroom 1106 in the Redmond Barry building of Melbourne University, you will find scrawled on an ageing desk an indiscreet, badly drawn, ill-proportioned penis. A reminder that even the top ranked tertiary education institution in the country is capable of producing students who find the shape and contour of male genitals so amusing that they will plaster such an obscenity on an innocuous piece of furniture. If our higher education institutions cannot instil a finer degree of taste and dignity in its graduates, then surely the future of education is bleak.
An OECD report from January this year suggests it may be. Without significant reform, the Australian education system will be the policy equivalent of a badly drawn dick. The report found that one in ten university graduates have poor literacy skills and one in fifteen have poor numeracy skills. Another report by the Australian Council of Education Resources suggests that 40,000 15-year-olds lacked the reading skills to “participate adequately in the workforce and to contribute as productive future citizens”. This report also found that one in five 15-year-olds failed to reach minimum international maths standards. These alarming statistics are all predicted to continue to negatively spiral.
Clearly, something is rotten in our education system. Yet who should we, in the time-honoured tradition of poorly performing students, lean across the desk and copy the answers from? In the global education stakes, Finland is the smart kid we need to be plagiarising. After languishing in global education rankings before the 1970s, the Finnish gave their school system a complete makeover: all education was made tuition-free up to and including tertiary level, all aspiring teachers were rigorously tested and had to obtain Masters degrees, school days and years were significantly shortened and all homework was banned. That’s right – no homework whatsoever! Finnish kids are more spoilt than those kids whose parents used to cut the crusts off their sandwiches.
Finland now tops the Global Education Rankings, while the US, which maintains a strict examination regime, languishes at 29th. Most Western countries have adopted standardised testing and uniform preparation for these examinations. However, Finland uses a more flexible, wellbeing-focused system which encourages teachers to tailor education to their students’ needs. Finnish Education Minister Krista Kiuru suggests it is only a matter of time until other countries follow suit. In my opinion, Australia does need to change the way we think about education, and shifting the focus from rigorous testing to nurturing the incalculable talents and personal qualities of students is a worthy start. Considering that jobs of the future will demand multi-skilled, conscientious and innovative workers, having a narrow approach to learning can only limit the potential of students.
In fact, Australia may be heading towards a more expansive view of childhood development and learning. The first sacred cow on the chopping block is the dreaded ATAR score. The ATAR system boils down a student’s entire educational development into one number that ranks them against their peers, most of which is attributable to only a few final examinations. Such ranking engenders a system of brutal competition, ending in an often humiliating display of judgement. Education experts are turning away from this rather arbitrary, inflexible system. “The use of any single test, number or calculation as a definitive measurement of academic readiness, or merit, is fundamentally flawed,” says Tim Pittman of Curtin University. Studies suggest that there is little correlation between ATAR scores and university performance.
Furthermore, the Australian National University has recently announced it will move away from ATAR scores as the sole determinant of entrance. Instead, the university will consider co-curricular involvement and community contributions, as well as academic achievement to select students. If other universities follow suit, the emphasis placed on ATARs by high schools will gradually erode. Whilst universities would have to develop clear, transferable rules regarding how non-ATAR considerations could be incorporated into their selection process without disadvantaging students who lack the access to community and co-curricular activities, it is surely a noble goal to expand the definition of a student’s worth beyond a reductionist number derived largely from a few examinations.
Whilst this modest reform is dwarfed by Finland’s education revolution, it gestures to where education is likely to go. There is a growing recognition that different students learn differently and therefore must be taught differently. This simple idea is reshaping global education policy and is being assisted by the rise in educational technology platforms. Particularly, websites like Khan Academy and AltSchool have provided digital platforms for students to learn and engage with video tutorials, online quizzes and educational games. Whilst websites have long been utilised by teachers, these particular platforms are far more intuitive and interactive, allowing students to tailor their own learning based on what they need most help with, in a way that one teacher cannot always do with a class of over 20 students.
Technology is also revolutionising higher education, with platforms aiming to increase equity by making courses available free online. Companies, such as Coursera, are creating short courses known as Massive Openly Online Courses (MOOCs). Universities are using these short courses to give people a taste of degrees, whilst simultaneously providing, albeit limited, access to education for those who cannot afford to attend university.
The University of Melbourne has pioneered the use of MOOCs in Australia, using Coursera to deliver courses with prestigious partner institutions, such as, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Bank of New York Mellon. Studying full degrees online is also an increasingly popular option, particularly for mature age students. Open Universities Australia enrolled 45,000 students in online degrees in 2015, 68 per cent of who were over 30 years old. Enrolments of mature age students in online degrees are tipped to increase significantly as the digitisation of the economy requires workers to reskill.
The increasing digitisation of education raises the question: are physical classrooms becoming irrelevant? Certainly, students may be more inclined to draw a wonky penis on a desk than on their teacher’s Facebook wall. But is the online sphere actually conducive to learning? Dr Sugata Mitra, a renowned IT educator, believes that, in the future, learning will be done “in the cloud”. He argues that the accessibility of online resources has made knowledge obsolete, with students only needing encouragement and the development of learning processes and critical capacities in order to cultivate unlimited knowledge-accumulation capacity. In his famous “Hole in the Wall” experiment, Mitra left computers in Indian slums and encouraged the students to explore their contents, and returned later to find they had taught themselves complex neuroscience. Whilst Mitra’s perspective may under-emphasise the need for educators to aid the development of students, it seems clear that, in future, education will be predominantly digital and largely student-led, which will hopefully give students more tailored tuition and greater agency in what once was a rigid, conformist schooling regime.
In the march towards our digital future, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines are largely privileged. Both major political parties in Australia plan to boost the number of students studying STEM subjects and declines in these fields over the past decade are expected to reverse in coming years. Yet, many educators fear that our schools may no longer nurture creativity. “Our mind has been mined the way we mine the earth for a particular commodity,” said creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson. “Instead, we must wisely cultivate creativity and acknowledge the various types of intelligence.”
The acceleration in the demise of creativity in education can be seen through the closure of major art schools around Australia. In the last five years, three major art schools in Sydney alone have closed down, and the two remaining schools at Sydney University and the University of New South Wales recently ditched a proposed merger after significant protests. Sydney artist Ben Quilty, a graduate of the Sydney College of the Arts, wrote on Facebook, “The economic rationalisation of education is surely destroying culture”. Without a significant departure in current trends, the future of education will almost certainly privilege empiricism and rationality over critical inquiry and free expression, the results of which will be keenly felt by creative people. In my mind, this is a tragic under-utilisation of talent that could otherwise enrich our society.
On that note, I will leave you with the mental image of the proud, hairy schlong in Redmond Barry, undeterred by the weight of history and expectation of the institution surrounding it – perhaps a metaphor for the sticky future of our nation’s education system.